Rye diary: The final days

As a diarist, I would never make it. Hat’s off to you, Mr. Pepys.

This post has been a long time coming. Earlier, I picked all the rye that looked ripe.

rye seed heads harvested

I set it in the shed, the way I should set my poems in a drawer. A few weeks later, I rolled out the seeds, and over the next few days tried to clean all the bristles out. I haven’t cooked the rye yet, because I can’t tell whether I got the husk off. Ah, novices.

I still had the stiff stalks and a vigorous crop of weeds growing up between them.

dead rye stalks

And I still wanted to plant a new crop of winter rye—one that, this time, I would dig under in spring.

The problem? Yellow jackets. Early on in the summer, I noticed a constant activity of flying, stinging insects, and I realized that yellow jackets had an underground nest at the edge of the rye patch. One website said that yellow jackets are ferocious and will kill you and should be exterminated immediately. Another website said that if you could leave them alone, they would leave you alone. But how big is that nest, and is it under my rye patch? Digging no longer seemed like a good idea.

Finally, with a pair of grass clippers, I cut down the stalks. Along the way, I pulled some verbena–seeds from a plant pulled years ago, seeds that had stayed dormant during the years of the rampant roses and now, with the ground cleared, are cropping up everywhere. I tried to avoid the random parsley, the come-back sage, and second-generation strawberries. And when I pulled one feathery plant, thinking it might be angelica, I found a tiny carrot!

carrot on the table

Then I gently, timidly, raked the soil, spread some more seeds, raked again to get them under a little dirt, and covered the patch with the old straw.

Now, while the rest of the garden goes to shambles, the rye patch revives.

new rye coming up

All the while, I’ve been thinking about those yellow jackets, the verbena, the carrot, and writing. I want those stinging neighbors to stay underground—but in writing, I want to excavate the whirr and barbs. It’s also scary. I’m still learning how to be brave. In writing, I want the dormant stories and feelings to surface like that verbena. And yes, I’m hoping to renew and grow greenly, hoping to pull up a carrot.

Looping and stretching

Earlier this month, during my final residency of graduate school at the Rainier Writing Workshop, I presented my critical paper on how time works in poetry—how, by changing our perceptions, sound and image in poetry create a space where we can step outside of time. Because I’m drawn to music, I started out with sound and then repetition—including refrain and anaphora. While reading poems for this paper, I came across looping and stretching. Someone asked where I found those terms. My answer? I made them up, as a way to talk about these specific moves.

Looping

Looping is where a line or a sentence starts with one actor or image and leads to another. Line (or sentence) two starts with the second actor or image and leads to a third. My favorite example of this is Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s poem The Possibilities, which appears in her book In the Badlands of Desire. The poem begins:

After a wife’s death a man may talk
to his horse with a great tenderness
as if, just this morning, he had tried on
her pink slipper. And if he has no horse
he may crack his window a little
wider when it lightly rains to confirm
the roofs and trees are made
of paper. If there is no rain
he may make himself a meal at midnight,
sweet artichokes and Danish cheese,
a glass of red wine. If there is
no red, then white. . . .

See how she starts with the man talking to his horse, and the next sentence starts with the horse (or no horse), and moves to the window and rain? The third sentence starts with rain (or no rain) and moves to, finally wine. The fifth stanza switches from red to white wine. The use of “if,” combined with negation (no horse, no rain, no red), add instability, while the repetition of “may” sets up a pattern (“may talk,” “may crack,” “may make,”), which Goldberg breaks in the fifth sentence. Throughout the poem, she continues to return to the “may”/”there is no” pattern and then break it. I find this kind of movement deeply pleasurable. Two other examples of looping are Goldberg’s poem “Black Fish Blues”* (In the Badlands of Desire) and Jay Hopler’s poem “Winter Night Full of Stars”* (The Abridged History of Rainfall).

Try it for yourself! Here’s one way: Start with “If a” or “If you” and write a conjecture, then continue looping and see where it takes you. I tried using looping when I was struggling with how to progress through one poem. While my looping was not as tight, the patterns not as visible as Goldberg’s, the effort did help me to pull the poem together.

Stretching

Looping plays with pattern making and breaking. Stretching breaks and extends outside the image-rhythm of the poem. My favorite example of this, so far, is in lines 15-19 of James Wright’s poem “To the Adriatic Wind, Becalmed,”* from his collection This Journey.

Already the golden horses of San Marco
Have stepped carefully down in the darkness,
Placed their frail ankles one after another
Over the damp cobbles, whickering lightly,
And gone. . . .

The image could easily end with “down in the darkness,” but Wright keeps stretching it, leading our eye to the “frail ankles,” their movement “one after another,” bringing our eye all the way to the “damp cobbles.” He keeps stretching the image, adding a sonic experience with “whickering lightly,” and he ends the image with the horses’ departure. The image extends, keeping our attention, expanding our experience, until we’re left alone in the empty street. It’s a kind of camera work, but as this example shows us, it can also be multisensory. Stretching an image also disrupts the pacing of a poem (or prose), and that causes a disruption in time.

What images can you stretch? And which images want to carry the attention, to hold the heightened focus, of that disruption?

*I was unable to find these poems published online.

Rye diary: Day fourteen, what feeds us

Slowly, the rye is ripening. Or just staying damp. It was raining softly when I took this photo.

rye patch

Note that tall stalk just right of the center. Here’s a closer look:

headless rye stalk

That intricate, jewel-like seed head seen in earlier photos is gone. Just gone.

This is the mystery: The rye heads have been disappearing. You might think they’d fallen off from their own weight. But the ground shows no evidence of fallen seed heads. Something must be coming in the night and dining on the rye.

And trampling the center of the patch.

Maybe multiple creatures: one that rampages through low, and one that attacks from higher up.

I say attack, but I’m trying to mean feast. I had nurtured ideas that I might be able to harvest my tiny crop of rye and make something of it. I could cook the berries like rice, or grind them into some trace amount of flour to use in muffin. Now, that looks unlikely. By the time it’s ready, it will be gone. But it seems I’m pleasing my uninvited guest.

It’s got me thinking about what we feed and what feeds us. When you’re in your day, how do you nourish your writing? And how does it nourish you? The rye patch reminds me to make better choices, to feed and be fed by what’s important to me.

And to take time to enjoy the few stalks left.

rye seed head close up

Rye diary: Day five

The winter rye continues to grow, and I continue to do my (daily-ish) writing practice.

I now have many free writes. They make me think of this patch of green stalks not yet ready to mature. I worry that I’ve forgotten how to take the raw, rough, wild stuff and cultivate it into a poem. This is not a new anxiety. I can keep writing, until the day when that writing compels me to complete it, guide or follow it into a form to be shared. Or I can, in time, turn all that writing over, trust that it’s down in the good ground of my mind and will help the next ideas prosper.

In the meantime, there is much to read between now and my graduation from Rainier Writing Workshop in August. Much to read, and I revel in it.

(If this reading is a procrastination technique, it’s a good one!)

How about you? Do you ever feel lost in an overgrown patch and can’t see your way through to a poem?

Rye diary: Day four

The grass I grow, and the grass I need to mow

Here’s wishing you a happy May Day and hoping that you enjoyed a marvelous Poetry Month.

In the photo, you can make out a couple of stones. Those make the line between the lawn’s lush green abundance and the scraggly patch of winter rye. Okay, some lawn grass is mixed in between the rye and the irises. But it’s had me thinking about what we cut and what we keep, about censoring and not censoring, about how we tend our writing. Even about where I’m putting my energy.

In thinking about writing, I’m seeing the two kinds of grasses not as separate things but as the different attentions required. There’s letting the creative rush run over, there’s perhaps (for me, always) the need to trim, to shape, and there’s the need to tend, to wait patiently.

After three years of writing, trimming, waiting, and tending, I’ve turned in my creative thesis for my MFA. Now, I’m trying to write new work, send some of that MFA work into the world, and maybe turn some of my attention to the many (many!) poems that didn’t fit into the thesis.

How about you? Is spring energizing your writing? Are you waiting? Digging in the dirt? Putting on the final pruning touches?